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What does the government say about putting up regulations on OTT content and digital news media platforms?

With the new wave of technology and internet acceptability sweeping the country in recent years, the consumption of digital content by every single person not only in India but also across the world has jumped multifold. We as a user can now find every single type of content, we are looking for to feed on the internet. First came search engines like Google followed by the social media websites and platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. We have been eating up content from everywhere without actually cross-checking and fact-checking the material. In recent years, the development of OTT over the top media platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Voot etc, has further incremented the content consumption by an average user. A common man feels no discomfort in scrolling his phone or laptop or computer in search of the latest news updates, entertainment, or even regular posts from friends, family, or even celebrities.

One might argue that this digital revolution has speeded up the spread and circulation of information among masses. Now one can share his thought or something that he deems to be true with millions of people with something as simple and comfortable as a finger tab on the post button. Indeed, this has a lot of benefits to the information-hungry people and resources around the world. But as the pandemic has shown us, sometimes too much information is also as useless, if not worse, as no information. It is held through by empirical evidences that Misinformation and disinformation hold the potential to ruin and destroy peace in a well settled and harmonic society.

Announced on February 25, the information technology rules 2021 provide a progressive institutional mechanism featuring a code of ethics along with a 3-tier grievance redressal framework for the internet world.

And this new rule set, the digital news publishers and the over-the-top media platforms (OTT platforms) will be required to classify their content into five categories divided on the basis of age of the viewers. These categories are as follows:

  • U (Universal)
  • U / A 7+
  • U / A 13+
  • U / A 16+
  • A (Adult)

The platforms shall also have to implement a strategy of parental locks for the content lying in the third category and above, that is 13 plus, 16 plus, and adult. There shall also be a requirement of a reliable age verification mechanism to view the content in the adult category. From now on, the digital media news publishers would be required to observe and adhere to the journalistic code of the press council of India.

This step has received responses which are both negative and positive. Critics say that these rules do nothing but curb the freedom of expression and freedom of speech enjoyed by the digital media. Some even claim that this step is a step towards dictatorship. On the positive aspect of it, supporters claim that this move shall prevent spread of misinformation and reduce the chances of unethical and violent content getting viral and influencing the society.

Let’s examine this decision first in respect to the content on over-the-top platforms.

It is for the first time that India has taken a route of self-classification from censorship or precertification. The Infocomm media development authority of Singapore is the general media regulatory body. For any platform to operate in the country, a licence for operation is quintessential. The content code, in effect from March 1 2018, requires classification of content, age verification, and parental lock systems. To support the parental lock and parental guidance systems, Singapore’s film classification guidelines also provide a list of categories under which content must be classified. These 6 ratings are as follows:

  • G (general)
  • PG (Parental Guidance)
  • PG 13 (parental guidance for children below 13 years)
  • NC 16 (no children below 16 years)
  • M 18 (MATURE 18, for people of 18 years and above)
  • R 21(restricted to people of 21 years and above)

Australia has also been in the Limelight recently with its antecedents with Google and Facebook regarding privacy concerns. The online media in Australia is regulated through the broadcasting services act 1992 and the enhancing online safety act 2015, with the office of the e-safety commissioner being the regulatory authority for online content. There are restrictions regarding certain kinds of content in accordance with the industry standards but there is no legal restriction regarding viewing or playing the three categories (General (G), parental guidance (PG) and mature (M))

My only purpose of talking about all these countries was to prove that the self-classification of OTT content is not new and is already being practiced by a lot of countries. It provides no harm to the creativity of the people but just a safeguard towards age restrictions.

Now coming to the question of regulation of the digital news portals.

As per the new law the digital media houses need to follow the already established journalistic codes and make sure that the prohibited content is not shared or transmitted. Well, isn’t it something that the digital media houses, provided they are working towards genuine causes, should already be doing? another part of it deals with providing a grievance redressal mechanism. An organisation which claims to be transparent enough to share everything that is authentic and true should not be afraid of any kind of grievances or reverts. Should it?

There are also widespread concerns about the rule 16 under part 3 which gives certain powers to the secretary of the ministry of information and broadcasting. Under this, the secretary can issue internet blocking directions in the situation of an emergency. To bring to your interest, this right is already enjoyed by the secretary, ministry of electronics and information technology, under the information technology rules 2009 from the past 11 years. and simply because of the fact that the new information technology rules 2021 will be administered by the ministry of information and broadcasting, this power shift between secretaries has been made.

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